Ok, I lied. There is no Windows Phone, this is about the Apple iPhone X. It isn’t even about the iPhone X, it is about clairvoyance. One of the signature features of the iPhone X is Windows Hello. Oh, sorry, I mean “Face ID”. And Qi-based wireless charging. I think I still have some Qi wireless charging plates lying around from a 4 year old Lumia 1020 Windows Phone. Ok, so the iPhone X is full of technology pioneered by Microsoft and its ecosystem years earlier. The only reason to be snarky is because of a long tradition of Apple and its fanboys claiming Apple is innovative and Microsoft is not. I should be excited that these technologies are now available in the phone ecosystem I use. Very excited. So why do I feel let down?
I think about the iPhone X and picture how it will change my life 6, 12, or 24 months from now and draw a blank. The first 10 years of iPhone marked a profound change in how I live my life. In how nearly all of us live our lives. Even those without smartphones have experienced the change. My mother experienced her first Uber ride a few months ago. She didn’t have a smartphone, but my cousin did. And she is only marginally aware of how it contributed to the restaurants we’ve chosen, her healthcare, her travel, or dozens of other things we’ve done on her behalf using a smartphone.
The technological advancements in smartphones the last decade are breathtaking, even when we take them completely for granted. Take a current dilemma for the military, the potential that they will be denied access to GPS signals during a conflict. For 30+ years militaries, particularly those of the U.S.A., have used GPS at the core of navigation. It allows them to feed an accurate current position into Inertial Navigation Systems. But GPS signal access can be denied, or potentially spoofed, and DARPA (the guys who brought you everything from the Internet to Stealth) have a project to provide accurate positioning information in GPS-denied environments. One element of that program is to triangulate on existing radio signals. Well, how does “GPS” work in today’s smartphones?
To reduce battery drain smartphones run with their satellite GPS receivers turned off. However they are always looking for, and connected to, a nearby cell tower with the strongest signal. So they can see one or more cell towers and they know where they are located. When an application asks for location, the smartphone very quickly gives it a location that is triangulated from the cell towers it already looking at. That isn’t as accurate as GPS, but it is good enough for many uses. Then it looks at all the available WiFi signals. It can access a database of known WiFi hotspot locations and triangulate on those. Finally, if the app has asked for maximum location accuracy, the phone fires up its GPS receiver and tries (since GPS signals don’t penetrate buildings, or the “canyons” created by skyscrapers, well) a satellite-based location. It fuses all this information to determine a very accurate location for your phone. You can actually see this in action in many location-based applications. You fire up Uber and watch as the pin moves from a location tens or hundreds of feet from where you are standing to almost exactly where you are. Map apps may also show a blue circle around the location, indicating accuracy. The circle shrinks as a more accurate location is determined. Many applications go one step further by having a database of known points of interest, such as hotels, restaurants, popular office buildings, etc. So when you ask for an Uber and the cell tower triangulation says you are 50 feet from an Italian Restaurant it assumes you are at the Italian Restaurant. I can request an Uber from inside my condo. Location services always starts with a location around the corner from my building entrance, but the Uber app is smart enough to know I’m likely requesting a car from the Home address I’ve saved. As a result, if GPS satellites were to suddenly all stop working, most location-based apps would continue to work much as they do today.
The maturity of location services in smartphones, and of course the apps built on them, has changed our lives. Does the iPhone X offer anything with similar potential? I don’t think so.
What about Augmented Reality? That isn’t something unique to the iPhone X, but indeed has long term potential. I may not care much about it, except as a curiosity right now, as I’m not a gamer. But denying ARs potential would be like claiming GPS was only useful for back country hikers a decade ago. Learning that the sleepsofa we bought couldn’t make it into a guest room no matter how the delivery guys twisted and turned it, before we bought it, would be a game changer.
So why would I part with $1000 for an iPhone X. There are many times I’d like a screen the size of my iPhone 7s Plus in a smaller package. I’m having trouble convincing myself that is worth $1000 when the 7s Plus is no new. I would normally wait for the Xs to make a move. And there is a potential reason not to buy an X, the lack of a fingerprint reader.
The only reason I really care about a fingerprint reader is that Windows Hello, I mean Face ID, seems really inconvienent for Apple Pay. What’s the sequence? I do the usual dance trying to find the right spot on the payment terminal for Apple Pay to launch, then I have to hold it up to see my face, then I have to do the dance again to find the right position to register the payment? I’ve gotten good at the current sequence, where I find the right position while my thumb hovers over the start button then just give it a touch when Apple Pay launches. Forcing me to use Face ID (or a pin) instead probably means its more convenient to go back to pulling out a credit card. I could wait and see if the Xs introduces a screen-based finger print reader, which was something Apple reportedly dropped from the X because they were having trouble getting it to work in time for launch,
So I’m not too excited by the iPhone X, and emotionally lean towards waiting for an Xs. But that isn’t the end of the story, since my interest may grow over time. While I have often pre-ordered devices, that hasn’t been the case with iPhones. With iPhones I find my excitement builds over time and I tend to buy them a few months after introduction. So if February comes around and I’m carrying an iPhone X, don’t be too surprised.
Meanwhile, I was talking to a friend about what would really get me excited about mobile phones again and I gave him a one-word answer: clairvoyance. He thought I was joking. Fortunately we both believe in Clark’s Laws so be prepared for magic, I mean sufficiently advanced science. Why do I have to use a finger print or Face ID at all when making a payment? Or to access the phone at all? Clairvoyance or bust.
Behavior approaching clairvoyance is already something we are familiar with. Android and iOS already will figure out your home and work addresses based on behavior. Waze knows I’m going to/from work and home based on time of day and location I start a journey. That used to only happen with my pre-designated Home and Work. But lately I’ve noticed that it handles going from my Colorado home to Colorado work location, even though what is programmed in are my Seattle home and work locations. Figuring things out from information we provide (e.g., a calendar entry with a meeting location in it) is just good programming. Deriving facts and projecting behaviors seemingly out of thin air? Clairvoyance.
Of course clairvoyance is a marriage of sensor data, historical behaviors, and cloud-based AI models. Mobile phones play a very small part, providing a portion (large today, smaller tomorrow) of the sensory input and serving as a human-network communications interface. So it is entirely possible to deliver clairvoyance without requiring a new mobile phone. But, like most things, having the right design center yields a superior experience. A mobile phone with delivery of clairvoyant experiences as the design center? That I could get excited about. It ain’t the iPhone X.